Holy Things for Holy People

The allusion to the Exodus story is contained in the first words of Deuteronomy 14:1 — “ye are the sons of Yahweh your God” — as well as in 14:2 in the use of the technical term translated “treasured possession,” “His own possession,” “peculiar people,” “precious people,” and so forth. The two allusions together bring to mind the whole story of the Exodus, from the call of Moses to the arrival at Mount Sinai. A godly Israelite recalling the story of the Exodus would have much to meditate on. I can only suggest a portion of what such a meditation might include.

Alluding to Exodus

The allusion to Israel as Yahweh’s son comes near the beginning of the Exodus story as Yahweh commissions Moses in words that briefly encompass the entire story of Yahweh’s judgment of Egypt: “And Yahweh said unto Moses, When thou goest back into Egypt, see that thou do before Pharaoh all the wonders which I have put in thy hand: but I will harden his heart and he will not let the people go. And thou shalt say unto Pharaoh, Thus saith Yahweh, Israel is my son, my first-born: and I have said unto thee, Let my son go, that he may serve me; and thou hast refused to let him go: behold, I will slay thy son, thy first-born. (Exodus 4:21-23)

For Israel to be Yahweh’s firstborn son implies that Israel has a special place, the highest place, among all the nations of the world. Thus, in the story of Exodus, the gift of Abrahamic covenant and the calling of Abraham and his descendants to bring blessing to all the world reverberates in the background. When Israel finally arrives at Sinai, Yahweh declares more fully what His son’s special position among the nations is — Yahweh’s firstborn is called to serve Him as the royal priesthood.

In Deuteronomy 14:1, the allusion to the Exodus 4:21-23 statement of Israel’s sonship connects naturally with the allusion in Deuteronomy 14:2 to Exodus 19:1-6 and the statement that the people of Israel are Yahweh’s special treasure. Just as the allusion to sonship comes from an important passage in the early part of Exodus, so, too, the allusion to Israel as a “special treasure” comes from one of the most important declarations in the Old Testament, Yahweh’s words to Israel when the nation arrives at Sinai. Note how this short proclamation of Yahweh’s covenant grace is both introduced and concluded with similar solemn language: “And Moses went up unto God, and Yahweh called unto him out of the mountain, saying, Thus shalt thou say to the house of Jacob, and tell the children of Israel: Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles’ wings, and brought you unto myself. Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be my special treasure from among all peoples: for all the earth is mine: and ye shall be unto me a royal priesthood, and a holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel. (Exodus 19:3-6)

What Yahweh had promised, He had accomplished. He did indeed punish the Egyptians as He said He would, killing their firstborn to redeem His own firstborn son. Moreover, He brought His firstborn son to Himself (“brought you unto myself”) — profoundly personal language, which comes with even greater emphasis when read in the light of the preceding clause. He brought His son, Israel, to Himself “on eagles’ wings” — language repeated in Deuteronomy 32:11: “As an eagle that stirreth up her nest, that fluttereth over her young, He spread abroad his wings, he took them, He bare them on his pinions.” As Deuteronomy’s allusion to Exodus 19:4 shows, the reference to the wings of an eagle speaks of Yahweh loving Israel with a mother’s love. Like a mother eagle, with tender care Yahweh guarded Israel and carried His son out of Egypt and to His mountain, to Himself.

The grace of redemption from Egypt and Yahweh’s motherly concern for the son in the wilderness on the way to the mountain of God were the prelude to the personal meeting at Sinai where the covenant was granted as an expression of Yahweh’s redemptive love. Therefore, the statement “if you will obey my voice and keep my covenant” cannot be read as if Yahweh’s motherly affection had somehow been transformed into thundering threats, or as if a king was now imposing a treaty on a defeated vassal. In fact, the covenant intended to make the firstborn son of Yahweh a co-ruler with Him, a “royal priesthood” and a “holy nation.”

Holy Nation, Holy Food

The food laws in Deuteronomy are prefaced by allusions to the Exodus and Sinai, specifically reminding the Israelites that they were called to be a holy nation because they were Yahweh’s precious treasure, beloved by Yahweh with the love of a mother and father. They had been set apart from all the nations of the world and had been given the gift of the covenant because Yahweh had promised Abraham that his descendants would be blessed and also be a blessing (Genesis 12:1-3). Since the Exodus itself was in fulfillment of Yahweh’s promise to Abraham (Genesis 15:13-16), the whole Exodus story and the gift of the covenant at Sinai could only be understood in connection with Abraham.

The food laws, therefore, defined what it meant for Israel to live a holy life in the holy land. Avoiding all serpent-like food, while awaiting for the coming of the Messiah, constituted an essential aspect of Israel’s call to be holy, to be different from the nations around her, for those nations were enslaved to the Serpent. For an Israelite every meal was to be a confession that Yahweh had chosen them from among all the nations, called them His firstborn, and given them His covenant as His holy people. Israelites following the laws restricting them to holy food would been proclaiming the truth that Yahweh had made them His holy people (cf. Leviticus 11:43-45). Thus, the restrictions had a positive message and meaning.

Holy Food, Holy Mission

As the holy people of Yahweh, set apart from the rest of the world as His special treasure, Israel had a special priestly calling, which the gift of the covenant at Sinai stressed. Their calling to be a royal priesthood indicated what it meant for Israel to be Yahweh’s firstborn. As royal priests, Yahweh’s firstborn would rule the world with Yahweh — just as Adam would have, had he obeyed Yahweh’s food laws. But Israel was to rule as a priestly nation, which meant the firstborn had a spiritual calling to bring blessing to all the nations of the world (Genesis 12:3). With the story of the fall in mind, it would not be difficult for a godly Israelite to understand that obeying the food laws which defined Israel as holy would be essential to fulfilling their mission to bring blessing to the world.

It is also significant that Deuteronomy begins the list of permitted animals with the three sacrificial animals which the priestly nation would offer to Yahweh for the forgiveness of their own sins and the sins of the world (Deuteronomy 14:4). Eating meat was probably not an everyday matter for the common Israelite. But at the festivals each year there would have been an abundance of the meat of the sacrificial animals, so that Israelites would have enjoyed their feasts in the presence of Yahweh (Deuteronomy 12:7, 12, 18) — a profound reminder of their priestly calling and mission to bring blessing to the world.

Special Food, Special Love

Though we perhaps read the food laws as limits on Israel’s diet, that is not the way they were supposed to see them. That is why, in Deuteronomy, Moses begins by reminding the Israelites of Yahweh’s special love and calling, displayed so wonderfully in the Exodus and declared so profoundly at Sinai (Deuteronomy 14:1-2). In this way, Moses’ introduction to the food laws was designed to protect the Israelites from the Satanic slander that had succeeded in the Garden. To Adam and Eve, Satan lied about the character of God. He slandered Yahweh’s name, implying that the food command in the Garden expressed mean-spirited jealousy, hatred, and petty mindedness. According to the Serpent, Yahweh’s command was not fatherly love intended to instruct His son, but Yahweh’s narrow, unloving demand. When Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they were affirming Satan’s slander of Yahweh’s name.

Any prohibition, especially one that was seemingly arbitrary, could attract the same sort of slander. Since nations around Israel ate some of the forbidden foods, the slander that Yahweh was prohibiting Israel from enjoying good things could occur to an Israelite or be suggested by pagan neighbors. Moses, therefore, puts the food laws under the Third Word as defining what it means for the Israelites to bear the name of Yahweh in their daily life, to live as His beloved sons and special treasure. The food laws are prefaced by a reminder of Israel’s high calling and Yahweh’s covenant love, so that the prohibition of certain foods would be understood in connection with that special calling and parental love. Food laws that forbade serpent-like animals were especially appropriate for a priestly people who would draw near to Yahweh and bear His name in the world. Understanding the food laws rightly — in the light of the preface and the allusions to the Garden and the Exodus — would not only prevent Satanic slander or misunderstanding, but also, and even more, make the food laws a blessing, a reminder of Yahweh’s grace and love for His firstborn, as if the law read: “You are Yahweh’s beloved son and special treasure, therefore in love Yahweh has given you this special diet.”

Alluding to the law in Deuteronomy

Deuteronomy 14:2 is almost an exact repetition of Deuteronomy 7:6. There is, therefore, no question about the fact of the allusion. But it is an allusion to a law, not a story. In this case, it is important to remember that, as I explained before, an allusion to a previous passage is intended to bring to mind the whole context, not simply the repeated words. Recalling the larger context in Deuteronomy 7 makes the reason for the allusion clear.

When Yahweh thy God shall bring thee into the land whither thou goest to possess it, and shall cast out many nations before thee, the Hittite, and the Girgashite, and the Amorite, and the Canaanite, and the Perizzite, and the Hivite, and the Jebusite, seven nations greater and mightier than thou; and when Yahweh thy God shall deliver them up before thee, and thou shalt smite them; then thou shalt utterly destroy them: thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor show mercy unto them; neither shalt thou make marriages with them; thy daughter thou shalt not give unto his son, nor his daughter shalt thou take unto thy son. For he will turn away thy son from following me, that they may serve other gods: so will the anger of Yahweh be kindled against you, and he will destroy thee quickly. But thus shall ye deal with them: ye shall break down their altars, and dash in pieces their pillars, and hew down their Asherim, and burn their graven images with fire (Deuteronomy 7:1-5).

For thou art a holy people unto Yahweh thy God: Yahweh thy God hath chosen thee to be a people for his own possession, above all peoples that are upon the face of the earth (Deuteronomy 7:6).

Israel’s holy calling required that Israelites avoid Gentile idolatry completely and entirely. In particular, no compromise with or mercy toward the nations of Canaan was permitted, for they were under the judgment of Yahweh’s wrath. The reminder of Israel’s holy status and the blessing of the covenant came also with a reminder of Israel’s calling to be an instrument in Yahweh’s hand to judge the Canaanites — the calling which Israel failed to fulfill when the holy people responded to the report of the 10 spies in unbelief, giving in to the slander of the serpent (Numbers 13-14).

The food laws are prefaced, then, with a reminder that can be seen to constitute a warning as well. By alluding to a passage that repeats the command to judge the nations of Canaan, Moses also reminds Israel of their rebellion against Yahweh at Kadesh Barnea and their failure to believe Yahweh’s promise, a theme that has been repeated in Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 1:19-46; 2:14-15; 9:22-24). Just as Adam’s obedience was tested with a simple command, Israel’s obedience would be tested by food laws. Trusting Yahweh and obeying Him as His holy people would bring success and blessing in the coming conquest because Yahweh loved His son Israel and delighted to bless him.

Alluding to laws in Leviticus

As we have seen, there are two allusions to the laws in the book of Leviticus. The more general allusion is to the food laws in chapter 11 of Leviticus. The second allusion is more narrow, but I believe it would not have been difficult for an ancient Israelite to discern, since the relatively rare Hebrew word translated “baldness” is only used twice in the whole law of Moses (Leviticus 21:5; Deuteronomy 14:1) and the basic content of the two passages is the same.

Priestly Laws of Mourning

By alluding to Leviticus 21:5, Moses directs the reader’s attention to a paragraph defining the laws of mourning for the priests. This might seem out of place in the introduction to the food laws, but it actually fits in well with the allusion to Exodus 19:1-6 in Deuteronomy 14:2 — the story of Yahweh making whole nation to be a royal priesthood. Thus, the priestly nation had mourning laws that were similar to and related to the mourning laws for their priests.

Of course, for the nation as a whole to be Yahweh’s priests did not mean that there were no distinctions among priests, as Israel learned in the wilderness through the failed rebellion of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. Yahweh had called the whole nation to holiness, but within the general priesthood given to the nation, there were distinctions. Aaron and Miriam had to learn a similar lesson with respect to Moses (Numbers 12).

What is interesting here is that one feature of the mourning laws specifically given to the priests in Leviticus is repeated in Deuteronomy and applied to the Israelites as a whole — though other restrictions on the priest’s mourning are not applied to the nation. The fundamental issue was holiness, a calling shared by the nation with its priests and reiterated in Deuteronomy 14:2 in a progression of thought that is basically the same as the passage in Leviticus 21:5-6. Note also the concern for Yahweh’s name, the concern of the Third Word: “They shall not make baldness upon their head, neither shall they shave off the corner of their beard, nor make any cuttings in their flesh. They shall be holy unto their God, and not profane the name of their God; for the offerings of Yahweh made by fire, the bread of their God, they do offer: therefore they shall be holy” (Leviticus 21:5-6)

The allusion to this priestly law in Deuteronomy 14:1, therefore, ties in with the emphasis on Israel as the special priestly nation and to the special demands placed on a holy people. Specifically, they are called to avoid Gentile customs, — probably associated with idolatry (cf. 1 Kings 18:28) — that would bring defilement. Obedience to the food laws, which would constitute the Israelites as a distinct people, were similarly a way in which they honored the name of Yahweh and lived a holy life as those who are near Him, His priestly people.

Levitical Food Laws

The meaning of the narrower allusion is made more clear by the allusion to the food laws of Leviticus 11, perhaps the first portion of the law an Israelite would remember as he read Deuteronomy 14:3-21. The law in Leviticus stands out especially because of the well-known words near the conclusion: “For I am Yahweh your God: sanctify yourselves therefore, and be ye holy; for I am holy: neither shall ye defile yourselves with any manner of creeping thing that moveth upon the earth. For I am Yahweh that brought you up out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: ye shall therefore be holy, for I am holy. (Leviticus 11:44-45)

The emphatic statement “for holy am I” occurs in those exact words only four times in the Old Testament, all in Leviticus (Leviticus 11:44–45; 19:2; 20:26; 21:8). In each occurrence, the people of Israel are called to imitate Yahweh’s holiness as His called and chosen holy nation. The food laws in Leviticus are emphatically laws of holiness for the nation called to be priests to the Holy God.

Note how in the paragraph below, which briefly repeats the essence of the food laws, there is similar emphasis on the relationship between food laws and Israel’s call to live as Yahweh’s holy people: “Ye shall therefore keep all my statutes, and all mine ordinances, and do them; that the land, whither I bring you to dwell therein, vomit you not out. And ye shall not walk in the customs of the nation, which I cast out before you: for they did all these things, and therefore I abhorred them. But I have said unto you, Ye shall inherit their land, and I will give it unto you to possess it, a land flowing with milk and honey: I am Yahweh your God, who hath separated you from the peoples. Ye shall therefore make a distinction between the clean beast and the unclean, and between the unclean fowl and the clean: and ye shall not make your souls abominable by beast, or by bird, or by anything wherewith the ground teemeth, which I have separated from you as unclean. And ye shall be holy unto me: for I, Yahweh, am holy, and have set you apart from the peoples, that ye should be mine” (Leviticus 20:22-26).

Nadab and Abihu

There is something more implied in the emphasis placed on making distinctions between clean and unclean animals. In Leviticus the repeated command to make a distinction between clean and unclean (Leviticus 11:47; 20:24–26) is grounded in the story of Nadab and Abihu, whose failure to make proper distinctions in their priestly service cost them their lives. Immediately after Nadab and Abihu are judged by Yahweh, and Aaron is forbidden to mourn for his sons, Yahweh adds this instruction: “And Yahweh spake unto Aaron, saying, Drink no wine nor strong drink, thou, nor thy sons with thee, when ye go into the tent of meeting, that ye die not: it shall be a statute for ever throughout your generations: and that ye may make a distinction between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean; and that ye may teach the children of Israel all the statutes which Yahweh hath spoken unto them by Moses” (Leviticus 10:8-11).

Nadab and Abihu had failed to make the distinctions they should have made between the holy and the common, the clean and the unclean. At least that would seem to be the implication of this law forbidding the priests to drink alcohol when they go into the Tabernacle. Apparently Nadab and Abihu were drunk, which led to their indiscretion. They violated their call to holiness. Since they were holy leaders in a nation that was called to imitate Yahweh’s holiness, the incident held special significance, for it constituted the fall of the priests, just as the sin of worshipping the Golden Calf at Sinai constituted the fall of the priestly nation.

The incident with Nadab and Abihu is subtly alluded to in Leviticus 20 (quoted above) as it points back to the food laws of chapter 11 with its call to imitate Yahweh’s holiness. Leviticus 20 repeatedly emphasizes the importance of making distinctions, using a key verb four times. This is not evident in English because English usage demands different words be used. I have put the key verb in italics below.

I am Yahweh your God, who hath separated you from the peoples (20:24).

Ye shall therefore make a distinction . . . (20:25).

. . . which I have separated from you as unclean. (20:25)

And ye shall be holy unto me: for I, Yahweh, am holy, and have set you apart from the peoples, that ye should be mine (20:26)

The emphatic repetition of the key word from Leviticus 10 would serve to remind Israelites of Nadab and Abihu’s sin and warn them of the importance of making appropriate distinctions, for as a priestly people they drew near to Yahweh to serve Him in His house. These associations all belong to the food laws in Leviticus. In Deuteronomy 14, Moses’ allusions to Israel’s sonship, the priestly mourning laws of Leviticus 21:5-6, Israel’s mission to conquer Canaan (Deuteronomy 7:1-6) and the gift of priestly status at Sinai (Exodus 19:1-6) all combine with the allusion to the food laws in Leviticus both to encourage Israelites by the reminder of Yahweh’s gracious love and to warn them by the reminder of their past failure and the failure of Nadab and Abihu. The set of allusions bring to mind both the grace of the covenant and the weight of priestly responsibility.

Ralph Smith is Pastor of Mitaka Evangelical Church in Tokyo, Japan.